Online Engagement Festival Day Two: The Next Generation of Trade Unionists

Union Matters, Young Workers

Wednesday 30th September 2020

The union must show “real determination” in helping young people “make a stand” in their workplaces, young CWU members have said.

Speaking to around 9,000 viewers at the CWU young members fringe on the Online Engagement Festival, NEC youth representatives Erin Brett and Luke Elgar spoke alongside Lara McNeill, the Young Labour representative on Labour’s NEC.

Erin Brett began by thanking all CWU members for the effort that they put in as key workers during the height of the crisis.

However she warned of the government’s changes in tune towards those who kept the country going, telling viewers that “it seems like we were valuable during the pandemic, and we’re coming to the end of it, we’re expendable.”

Erin encouraged young members to engage with the union, describing how rewarding it is to engage in industrial politics and stand up for your colleagues and telling young workers that “we are the backbone of the union”.

She was followed by Lara McNeill, who discussed the political context of the situation, saying that in the past decade, constant economic, housing and health crises has meant that “a new class consciousness is arising among young people.

“We can’t get our own house, the rent is too high, our wages are so low.

“We are so disconnected to the society that is around us because of right-wing governments laying down these foundations, and we’re seeing people from even middle-class families not being able to get on in life, even though they’ve done everything the Tories have told us to do.”

                                    Lara McNeill

Lara, a junior doctor who was drafted out of her studies and into work during the crisis, is supported by the CWU in her re-election to represent 80,000 Young Labour members on the party’s governing body.

She argued for the labour movement’s need to “overturn years and years of voter apathy, to get people on long hours and low wages to turn out”.

And while she argued that the demoralisation after the 2019 general election is “difficult to deal with”, she urged workers to “stick together throughout it”.

She added: “Young people shouldn’t be patronised and told we can’t lead on these issues or in our workplace.

“There is no remedy to this crisis – the crisis of public health, jobs, capitalism – without a clear alternative socialist plan led by working people which does not treat the symptoms but the cause – which is stark inequalities in wealth and power.

“This is the perfect time for the Labour movement to come together to clarify our demands for change.

“The demonisation of the trade union movement won’t stop – in fact, they’ve probably not even started.

“Only the tenacity and hope of working class young people can combat those at the top.”

After Lara, Luke Elgar then discussed how “everyone” in British politics has “felt the thunderous voice of youth” in the past few years, but that this hasn’t been reflected widely enough in trade unions.

He described the CWU’s attempts to remedy this situation in our own ranks, with reforms that have included a young workers’ rep in every branch, a young workers’ lead in every region, and two NEC youth representatives.

Pointing out that 1.4 million people live in poor-quality homes and 400,000 live on the streets, Luke admitted that “it doesn’t paint a picture of positive prospects post-Covid.”

He said that we need to rebuild society properly – that “we need to be putting up fences at the top of the cliffs, not ambulance at the bottom.”

In this period, he said that there must be “real determination” to “focus our efforts on bringing through as many young people as possible as union activists.

“I’ve seen absolutely no evidence at all that young people are uninterested. Certainly, in my office, some new starters have got loads to say about management behaviour!”

                                       Luke Elgar

Luke urged senior reps to help challenge the “lack of belief” some young union members may have that they shouldn’t be standing as reps, and to make sure young workers know that “when they stand against injustices in the workplace”, people will be with them.

“Young people are radical, outspoken, and fearful of the future, and rightly so. It’s no wonder people think the system is failing them. But we need young people making a stand in their workplaces.

“Senior reps: do what you can to instil confidence to new starters in the workplaces. Say when something’s wrong. Say to young people who want to make a difference – it starts with you.

“No one can put you on the right path until you put your head above the parapet. But rest assured when you do that, there are loads of us that are ready to support you to deliver the change that you want to see.”

CWU president Karen Rose, who opened proceedings, said that seeing the “truly inspirational” young workers organising in the union “gives me hope for the future.”

General secretary Dave Ward added: “When I look at the young workers that I’ve met in our own union, young people involved in the trade union and labour movement, I’ve got a feeling that you’re not going to accept the consequences of this crisis, that you’re going to make change happen.”